Friday, September 18, 2009

Gentrified, or "Jenny" for Short

I live in an area that is gentrified. TriBeCa, like most New York neighborhoods, is mostly white and wealthy. It had been mostly spice merchants and coffee traders. My parents moved into the neighborhood 22 years ago, just before TriBeCa made the conversion from a wholesale center to a residential neighborhood. They moved in when the beach was still here. Apparently, there used to be some happening beach parties.

Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot of people use the word ‘gentrified’ more as a negative adjective to describe an area that, 20 years ago, they would have explained was “much nicer and safer than it was 20 years ago.”

As a result of gentrification, neighborhoods that once boasted impressive cultural, and maybe even economic diversity, starts to look like white suburbia. That’s not always a bad thing. With rich people come better schools, supermarkets, fitness clubs, safer streets, and great coffee.

But there is a tipping point. Like natural oil, there comes a time in a neighborhood’s life when there are no more secrets to unearth for the enjoyment of the upper-middle class. After a while, the traffic gets to be too much. All the old, beautiful warehouses are mined to extinction. The riverfront properties are occupied. The restaurants get too expensive and are, in the end, not even that good.

The younger crowd, the ones who live six to an apartment, move to Greenpoint. The mom with her awful ribbons and pearls moves back to Maplewood, New Jersey. Residents begin to slur the name of their neighborhood, as if embarrassed to admit they live in an area clearly past peak. “I live in, um, So – achem –Ho. But I usually only go out at 6 in the morning when the streets are empty.”

There’s nothing white people hate more than a gentrified neighborhood. It’s so passé. Boring

But I still love TriBeCa. We’ve still got the gazebo in Washington Market Park. We still have some mildly sketchy teenagers hanging out on the plaza. We’ve still got some rent control–ish. Yes, the neighborhood is slipping. Anyone who moved in while the beach was still here will tell you so. But it’s not all lost yet. The trick, now, is getting all that gentrification has erased, back.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

What Makes A Trash A Home

The beloved New York Times published an article titled “One Man’s Trash” about a noteworthy self-taught builder named Dan Phillips. Phillips, now in his mid-sixties, makes homes out of salvaged materials. Shards of glass are used for windows or kitchen tiles, picture frames are used for roofing, old wood for the wall, and license plates for waterproofing.

The structures, in the end, are beautiful. Slightly eccentric, a little slanted, but certainly original and, to use a word so rarely written properly, unique. The best part: the homes were built for low-income tenants. Many of these tenants have been foreclosed on and some houses have been abandoned, but that does not mean the effort has been a failure. On the contrary: the majority of people in Mr. Phillips’ rather conservative Texas town support his entrepreneurship and innovation. The reason why this is so important is because this public support will begin to challenge the ethics and aesthetics of other contracting, construction and real estate companies. And who doesn’t love a little capitalist competition?

Mr. Phillips’ hometown, and a few other neighboring cities, have already commissioned him to build recycling warehouses where others can donate or pick up materials for their houses. Imagine this on a large-scale, where the whole country participates in similar recycling plants – individual residents, contractors, and interior designers alike.

Every dump has already set-up a recycling and garbage-sorting endeavor. Adding a side-along operation like Phillips’ recycling center, run by either the private or public sector, would not be costly or demand much innovation.

I also envision another whole new industry: a comprehensive recycle pick-up enterprise, manned by young environmental enthusiasts and professionals alike who would be trained in construction and who could identify what waste could be used for what housing project. (Ex: I have a ton of empty Trader Joe label wine bottles, three bucks a pop. A great deal, I know, but could I get even more bang/k for my buck by recycling those bottles into lamp fixtures?)

I smell jobs. I smell environmental sustainability. I also smell fewer foreclosures, as the price tag for maintenance and reconstruction projects could be lessened. Could this be the very antidote for our country’s sick obsession of throwing out, buying new, and deeming trash what may very well be treasure? Maybe.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

A problem with stasis (and response to Mattan)

Sorry I've been away for a while. I've been editing a memoir - very exciting stuff. But I'm back with some new thoughts and a counter-point to my only but very lovely critic. Here goes:


Mattan, you make some interesting claims. But suggesting rent control should last forever is not like suggesting the minimum wage should last forever. You seem to be echoing and oft-repeated worry on the evils of stasis. First, it’s kinda like a pet peeve and all, but no one on the left is in favor of a minimum wage. We’re in favor of a livable wage. That goes up with inflation. Furthermore, rent control does not mean one-fixed price for all. It means, a government subsidized price that meaningfully relates to a family or individual’s income.

To allow rent to be determined by the market is unreasonable to all but the super wealthy, as the market works with bloated realities. In other words, the market fails to acknowledge that a group of people should not be displaced from an area they helped build because market rents have gone up several thousands of dollars. Their apartments might be worth thousands a month, but if that price is based of a “neutral” economic model, shouldn’t it be high time we consider another model instead?

Also, you say that it’s unfair not to allow the rich or young to live in areas just ‘cause other people are living there first. Who said anything about barring the entranceway? Of course there is room for the rich and young. However, gentrification has usually resulted in the near-total removal of previous inhabitants. And it's not a reciprocal relationship. The poor and old never have the opportunity to move into an area dominated by the wealthy and young.

Also, your claim sounds a little bit like this: 'so you have a home and all, but like, I have a ton more money than you and I want to live where you’ve been living all these years, and so uh, let’s get packing buddy.' You have to respect the people who live in a place where you want to move. It’s called being nice to your neighbors. You, the private real estate market, and Israel all have a hard time with this seemingly basic concept.


This is a tangent, but Mattan, I just have to reflect on your, "a large number of libertarians are poor" comment. Yes, many libertarians are poor. They tend to live along Appalachia (although few actually use the complicated term 'libertarian' as they suffer from abysmal education). Good point. But I would argue that these people, like most lower-income conservatives, act against their own self-interest. At the risk of sounding 'east-coast elitist,' I argue that these 'libertarians' act against their own self-interest because they have not been taught how to critically think. That is why I make and stick by my claim that libertarians (alright, alright, I'll say most libertarians) tend to be the people who benefit from unregulated capitalism.

You also said "laissez-faire capitalism is not about keeping the rich richer," but that this pattern "is a symptom of an uneducated populace." This sentence is wrong on so many levels, but let's start with the most basic: the rich do not get richer because some people in America are uneducated. I'm not sure how you constructed that one, but I think you're confused about a basic tenet of capitalism. In capitalism, the rich get richer because they control the most capital (among many other reasons). It's true that education and wealth are linear - usually, the wealthier class has the best education just as the best educated tend to constitute the wealthier class, but to suggest that the rich continue to get rich while the poor get poorer precisely because the poor suffer from a lack of education, is perverse. Their lack of education is the symptom, not the cause.

There is a constantly morphing but ever present populace of poor people in America because capitalism operates in stratospheres. There are only a few spots on top and many spots on the bottom. That’s why, in a laissez-faire market, there will always be people who are struggling to pay the rent. Rich people are rich because there are poor people. You need to know this if you’re ever going to talk economics. That's where many people have invested in alternative economic models. Max was one. You may argue that in America, the poor people don’t have it bad because, hey, they’re not as bad as the poor in India. But that is a terrible argument for many reasons:

1. There is hardly such a thing as leisure for the American poor. They may have light and hot water and even air conditioners, but they do not have quality of life or downtime to enjoy it. If they did, they would probably end up homeless.

2. These people have no clout. They are voiceless in a free market.

3. They can never be entrepreneurial or ever chase an ambition. They can’t afford to, and as government subsidies like welfare are practically nil, they have no public support to do so. Remember, the self-made men and women come from secure homes with lots of connections. Oprah is about the only one who jumped the gap.

4. Arguing that the American poor have it good compared to the Indian poor, for example, is a moot point. This is America, not India, we should not pat ourselves on the back because we are not like a nation impoverished who has suffered from hundreds of years of colonial subjugation and a rigid social caste. I hate these kinds of meaningless comparisons.


As we’ve witnessed, market-driven rents and home prices can drop, leaving some working families homeless, and middle-income families struggling. But let's be clear: the crash in private real estate had nothing to do with rent control. Rent control fights against the real estate bubble, it does not contribute to it. You can argue, and I know you like to argue, that it was government involvement in the real estate market to begin with that caused this crash. But that’s misleading.

Just look at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two government-created mortgages companies. Both firms were a result of the Great Depression, a tell-all sign of the instability of the capitalist market, which had hitherto been unregulated, and which resulted in a crumbled private housing sector (actually, more attention should be paid to American capitalism pre the 1929 crash. It is a real life example of the failure of the laissez-faire market, unlike, for example, the ludicrous claim that Bolshevism in Russia demonstrates the failure of Marxism-in-practice).

The creation of the two giant mortgage companies single handedly rebuilt the private housing sector (a sector which screams about the tyranny of government). But let's be clear: it was only when LBJ privatized both companies in 1968 that they grew to such heights as to monopolize the business, thus rendering it susceptible to the follies of other private investing firms eager to capitalize on high mortgage interest rates. Also, I hate the argument that says, all the other private investment firms started investing in toxic loans only because Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac did it first. If the private investment field is manned by people who can't think for themselves, isn't that a sign these companies have no right to be in the market in the first place?

I would hate to see another government created Fannie Mae but that’s because I don’t want the government to work on behalf of the private sector. Instead, I would like to see government take over the whole housing market because, like health care, it should be publically owned.

If it were publically owned, I argue there would be more incentive to preserve and maintain than there would be in the private sector. Why? Just look at publically owned national parks. It is in our tax-paying interests to develop structures that will not only last but also be efficient. Private markets are profit driven; they do not heed the call of the environmentally or socially conscious.

To wrap, let’s not get carried away by our fears on stasis. Yes, some buildings need to come down and others need to go up. No one is arguing otherwise. It’s how they go up and down, who is making the decisions, and who is profiting and loosing by this change that is important to study. The poor are ever-present. Shuffling them from slum to slum just because neighborhoods need to grow and change for the young and the rich eager to move in is an instable and faulty plan. The solution is rent control.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Sharing similar sob stories

In Sunday’s New York Times, the writer and filmmaker Lee Grant wrote a letter to the editor about her neighborhood, the upper west side. The gist: her favorite local restaurants and shops, some of which have been in the neighborhood for years, have been forced to close up shop due to insane real estate prices. Chains have replaced them all.

In the news, we hear stories of the depressed real estate economy. In the Boston Globe, it was reported that Federal Reserve chairman Ben S. Bernanke was hesitant to declare the economy on the mend precisely because of commercial real estate lag. But in New York City, this is hardly a reality. It may be that housing does not fly off the shelf quite as quickly as it used to, and it may be that a West Village apartment goes for half a million less than it had two years ago. But it still has a multi-million dollar price tag.

Everyone has an anecdotal story about New York prices. My smart and lovely neighbors for example are moving out of their TriBeCa apartment because their rent is too high and the job market too unfriendly. What’s infuriating about this is that my building had been rent control.

Under the Mitchell-Lama program, my landlord received major tax breaks for keeping rents affordable to middle-income people. And it worked beautifully. But no one was told my landlord would have the option to buy out of the program 25 years down the road. Well, he did just that, and as his decision to do so coincided with the city’s real estate boom, rent in my building rose from $1,000 a month to $5,000 a month. Many of my neighbors, who had worked so hard to make TriBeCa livable, left, and new 20-somethings moved in. The neighborhood became “hot” and our favorite restaurants like River Run on Franklin – best steak and potatoes in the world – closed because they, too, couldn’t pay the rent.

It’s not enough to sit by and let the market take its course. Too many people are getting screwed. We need more rent control. Free market capitalists and conservatives may be horrified at the thought but then ask yourself which laissez-fairest, which republican representative, ever had to struggle to pay the rent or had been forced to move because of a landlord’s decision to embrace market prices. Very few, I’d bet.

To Lee Grant: I hear your plea. It makes me sad, too.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

West side story

Insane real estate demands that resulted from neighborhood development – in which developers “discover” areas to market for wealthier clients, areas usually made beautiful by the poor artists and gay residents who lived there years before – have forced Manhattan to assume the persona of a homogonous suburban strip mall. Bank chains, restaurant chains, luxury condominium chains, chain gangs of hipsters – it’s all lookin’ the same. This is an unfortunate consequence of the real estate market, considering it is the city’s diversity and cultural integration that are the very qualities that make it great.

When did this pattern start? The answer is, ever since the city was created. However, in the American context, there is one event in particular worth mentioning. It was the rise-to-power of Robert Moses. Moses’ grand plans changed New York City shorelines and skylines, redesigned transportation routes that subsequently altered the look of the outer-borough regions, and lay the ground-work for the way New York looks and feels today.

Moses developed an identity as a merciless developer. According to Mandi Isaacs Jackson, writer and researcher on urban history and social movements, Moses was “notoriously fond of bulldozers and ever anxious to clear away ‘slums’ and to replace them with new buildings. Frequently remarking that you cannot make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, he felt confident he was doing the right thing as he ran roughshod over neighborhoods that many residents felt were viable, safe, affordable and friendly.” Despite this image, Moses was seen as a sort of savior of the ailing city in government.

Let’s look at an example. Moses’ biggest slum clearance project in New York was the construction of Lincoln Center. Pre-Lincoln Center construction, the area was packed with tenements, most of which were in need of serious repair. Those living in the tenements: Puerto Ricans, mostly. These were the people who are most famously depicted as the Sharks in West Side Story. But there was also the Broadway theatre crowd, the middle class Jewish and white neighbors, and the super wealthy Central Park crowd. My grandfather served them all when he owned a supermarket in the neighborhood.

Post-Lincoln Center construction, they all left (all but the super-wealthy crowd and some of the middle class residents). No one knows the correct number of people displaced by the project, but Robert Caro estimates half a million. The result was devastating, but few people today know the history. Why? Because Lincoln Center is a success.

Among all the other city projects in the fifties through the eighties, the construction of Lincoln Center is a particularly important example because today, it is beloved, even by me. Enjoyed by students and patrons who attend Fordham University, Julliard, The New York City Ballet and Opera, or who visit the Metropolitan Opera, the center is a gem.

The point, then, is not solely to condemn what is built or torn down as a result of a development project, but how it is done so. Had the site been built in a less congested and under used area, or had it been dispersed over a few blocks, rather than clumped together into five huge superblocks, or had better and affordable housing been built alongside the project in order to accommodate the displaced people, thousands could have stayed in their neighborhood, and my grandfather might have kept his business. The center’s surrounding streets might have been saved from the perverse chains it is now forced to support.

Regardless of how New Yorkers feel about Lincoln Center today, low-income Puerto Rican New Yorkers should not have fallen casualty as a consequence of its construction. There is always another way. That’s true for the many development projects in New York City today. Neighborhoods should change, but change does not have to result in the obliteration of the old, or the affordable, or the non-white. What we need is better urban planning.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Cleaning up house

France suffered a severe housing and job shortage immediately following World War II. To combat this problem, the government came up with an appealing and surprisingly simple answer. In fact, they are recycling this 60-year-old solution in order to ease the current economic slump.

The French government adopted a Keynesian policy of intervention: they spent thousands of francs employing citizens to restore and maintain all of the old and beautiful buildings that line the famed Parisian boulevards.

Obama’s stimulus plan needs such a French twist. His proposal already addresses the need for infrastructure development, which includes bridge and road maintenance, but it should to be expanded to include real estate. Here is why:

The French method accomplished three important things: it established a labor niche which helped drag the county out of its depression, it preserved thousands of gorgeous structures that continue to draw people from all over the world – people who pay thousands of dollars for the privilege to see them – and it curtailed the post-war onslaught of commercial businesses from buying up and tearing down the country’s best buildings. (My brief analysis broadly skims over a much larger, more complicated problem that had plagued France. For a more in-depth understanding, check out “Housing Policy and Population Problems in France” by Cicely Watson, published in Population Studies).

Today, according to a New York Times article titled “France, Unlike U.S., Is Deep Into Work on Stimulus Project,” the French government is spending 100 million euros employing people to fix up cultural centers, touch up hundreds of chateaus, weed gardens, and secure railroads.

According to the article, France is deploying funds quickly and efficiently, knocking the theory of free-market proponents who believe big centralized governments are inefficient and static. Although France has to borrow millions of euros in order to fund the procedure, consider it a kind of cash-back plan, as preservation and revitalization are moneymaking sectors. For instance, they tend to cut costs as newer and more effective energy-conserving tools and appliances replace those that are wasteful. More importantly, it trains thousands of people in the many different fields of construction, an ever-present field.

Translate this into an American context: beautiful but depressed towns along the Hudson River, towns such as Troy or Fleischmanns, are haunted by structures of boom times past. And as foreclosures, abandoned residences, and unpredictable costs make gloomy the real estate market, a large-scale revitalization program makes sense.

It may ease unemployment. It will also make habitable homes for families in need, not to mention help with the plethora of impromptu ramshackle villages of recently homeless peoples that have sprung up all over the nation as a result of the economic downturn (there was a Times article about a particularly large one in Providence, Rhode Island that’s worth checking out). Subsequently, it would improve the attractiveness of towns and cities that could benefit from increased tourism.

If we accept the American ethic that home-ownership strengthens a nation, than the government, like France’s government, should help us protect them.